Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 Psalm 116:1, 10-17 I Cor. 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The remembrance of Holy Thursday is rich with incredible imagery. The visions ignited by the embers bring to mind and to heart the holy eating, drinking and storytelling that is recalled in the Passover celebration of the Exodus from Egypt found in the Old Testament reading.
In the Gospel reading, John’s account of the Last Supper differs from the synoptic gospels in timing and emphasis. In the Synoptics, Jesus eats the Passover meal with the twelve and following the meal institutes the Lord’s Supper. In John, the last meal is before the Passover, and there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist. For John, Jesus does not eat the Passover, heisthe Passover, bleeding and dying as the Passover lamb.
In the wonderful scene, we see the apostles and their preparation and response to Jesus washing their feet. Sam Portero suggests that Jesus, frustrated that time is running out and his disciples still don’t have a clue, uses a surprising, even radical act to get their attention. He does not ask his disciples to look up to find God – he forces them to look down – down to the filth and dirt – to the “unclean – to the poor, the outcasts – and then he challenges them to get down there with him.” Tonight as we kneel, “two truths are certain. We are following the example Jesus set for us – to serve one another in love and humility – and we acknowledge that we are a forgiven people.”
The “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum– the mandate. “You must love one another.” As the Gospel tells us, Jesus and his friends were in the upper room of what may have been an inn, just inside Jerusalem’s walls, eating the Passover Seder. During the supper, Jesus rose and began the process of washing their feet. Then when he gets to Simon Peter, he gets quite a reaction.
In this scene, some of us may identify with Simon Peter. We don’t know what the other disciples were thinking when Jesus took their feet into his hands and began to wash them. Peter was honest enough not to pretend that he could even think about letting it happen. Peter’s horror of Jesus being a servant to him, deeply touches a part of us. It is one thing to look up to Jesus in prayer as Holy One, Master, Lord, Messiah. It is something totally different to look down at Jesus, to see him looking up at us and to allow him to even touch our dirty feet, let alone to wash them.
I have talked often about being a volunteer in the Kairos Prison Ministry. During the preparation, at our last team meeting, after we have laughed and cried together and shared our stories, shortly before we go into the prison, we wash each other’s feet. It is important in the formation of the team as the Body of Christ, we show that we can be vulnerable, that we can be served, that mighty people of God are able to receive as well as to give. It is a moment in time that we are asked to lay aside our expectations, our judgments, our concerns and to be present, to be real, to be the hands and heart and feet of Christ. It has always been a precious moment for me.
Maundy Thursday is a liturgical landmark in the otherwise uneventful time of Lent’s wilderness wandering. Today we enter the three sacred days. This is the ancient Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It comes with emotional peaks and valleys and plateaus and it offers us an exercise in intimacy and distance, along with hope and despair. The extreme journey of the three days may leave us broken – broken open and vacant and receptive at Easter’s doorstep.
A large part of the service today is the foot-washing or hand-washing. Having our feet washed brings to heart and mind the issue of whether we will accept the absolute and unconditional love and allow it to envelop and penetrate us wholly. After Jesus has demeaned himself in performing the menial task of a slave, Judas’ disgust with him becomes total and he goes off into the night to betray Jesus. Judas had difficulty understanding Jesus’ mission from the beginning. A true King would have power, wealth and authority. He knew that a true King would not act this way.
During the foot-washing, Peter has to face his resistance to being served. You and I have to face our resistance to being served, to being open to receive this intimate act of kindness and to let go of being in charge. Though foot-washing belongs to another age and time, the symbolism still resonates with us to disturb and provoke emotions. When are we, in modern society washed? As helpless babies, we are washed by our mothers, on whose love and care we are totally dependent. When we are sick and unable to move or care for ourselves, we entrust ourselves to the care of nurses. Otherwise, we can pretty much fend for ourselves. Letting another wash us raises the issue of dependence and the need for trust – placing ourselves into the care of another. We see it in hospitals and nursing homes, but not in our lives. It is a moment of receiving, in a way that is so foreign to us.
“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”(John 13:8). There is no sentimentality in Jesus as he looks up from the basin. His words are strong and leave no room for compromise or discussion. Today, on Maundy Thursday, in preparation for tomorrow, he asks us to face the danger that our reluctance to be served puts us in. If we will not allow him to serve us, then we cut ourselves off from him. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into the depths of this moment, we see with clarity that Jesus shows us our human fallenness in Peter. Jesus comes to us bearing all the unnerving signs of life lived within the embrace of unconditional love. Peter is jolted by Jesus’ stern words into saying, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head” (John 13:9). His own reluctance to being reduced to helplessness cannot be canceled except through the shattering of his heroism in his threefold denial of Jesus. Peter’s humanity is our humanity.
On Maundy Thursday it is good to abandon the pretense that there is no resistance left in us. In a few minutes when given the opportunity to have our feet washed, and to wash someone’s feet, or to have your hands washed by another, and in that washing we claim, we proclaim that we are open to being served, to being loved. We are saying, “I am open to receiving the gift of servanthood. I am willing to receive so that I may give.” To be able to give, we must first receive.
The washing is symbolic, so there is no need for a lot of water. Simply wet one foot at a time and dry it. As you are working, you may softly speak a prayer for the person, for where the feet have been and where they are going. You may voice a prayer for the work of the hands and the lives that are touched by those hands. It can be a powerful moment when we step aside and let God enter into the experience. It is more than this simple act. It is a statement about our willingness to serve and be served.
We see Jesus’ act as a model of humility and service that the church is to emulate. The servant is no greater than the master, and the posture of washing feet whether understood literally or figuratively, vividly holds that truth before the eyes of the Church.
St. Theresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; No hands but yours; No feet but yours; Your eyes are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out into the world; Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”
Jesus said, “For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” Won’t you let me be your servant. Let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. Amen.